Throughout history, the medical profession has evolved with the development of new therapies, treatments, and technologies, including the herbs of prehistory, the vaccines of the 18th century, the antibiotics of the 20th century, and the genetics-based treatments the 21st century.
Today, as our society becomes more entrenched in the interconnected digital age, we find medicine undergoing a new set of rapid changes as it struggles to solve challenges new and old with novel technologies. What we are experiencing is the emergence of digital health, a new frontier in medicine primed to reduce healthcare inefficiencies, improve access, reduce costs, increase the quality of care, and make medicine more personalized for the patients being served.
The next question is: How can providers establish a digital health initiative within their practices so that their patients can begin to benefit from these rapid advancements?
There are a number of components that providers will need to consider before they’re able to integrate digital health into their practices. These components will also vary depending on the medical setting—whether primary care (outpatient) or acute care (inpatient)—and may overlap depending on the specifics of the practice.
Digital Health in Primary Care Settings
In the primary care setting, digital health has the potential to play a prominent role in preventative care by helping providers monitor and understand patient health data, encourage healthy living, and promote general wellness. Below are some potential components that can be incorporated into a digital health initiative for a primary care setting.
1. Wireless Medical Devices for Patient Monitoring
According to the FDA, the term “wireless medical device” refers to any medical device that operates using radio frequency communication, for example, through WiFi, Bluetooth, or mobile data. This broad term can refer to any of a number of devices, including those in an acute setting.
When it comes to digital health in a primary care setting, the wireless medical devices with the greatest potential to revolutionize patient care are those used to monitor patients remotely in order to collect data that can be used to either make a diagnosis or create a treatment plan.
For example, there are a number of new wireless monitors in development that may one day replace bulky Holter monitors used in the diagnosis of heart arrhythmias. These monitors are both typically more comfortable for the patient and more accurate, allowing providers to make precise diagnoses and resulting in more effective patient care. Other devices like continuous glucose monitors are already on the market.
2. Mobile Medical Apps
As we become increasingly entrenched in the mobile era, smartphones have gone from a luxury of the affluent to a ubiquitous accessory. While many consumers think of their smartphones as communication tools and wards against boredom, they also have a significant role to play in the arena of public health, thanks to the emergence of mobile medical applications.
These apps help empower patients to better manage their own health by providing them with the information that they need to make informed health decisions about topics such as:
- Physical activity
- Healthy diet
- Symptom trackers
- Medical emergencies
In addition to empowering patients to become better stewards of their own health, a number of these apps also offer healthcare providers valuable insights into aspects of the patient’s life that may influence treatment.
For example, a dietician can use a diet-tracking app to monitor the foods that a patient eats in order to have a better understanding of the patient’s average nutrition; a physical trainer or therapist can use an app that monitors physical activity and assigns workouts.
3. General Wellness
Primary care providers will always be in the business of promoting general wellness amongst their patients, usually focused on topics like diet, exercise, weight management, preventative care, and symptom management.
Though these areas are not entirely dependent on technology, emerging tech may play a role in making it even easier for providers to offer guidance on general wellness.
For example, some apps make it possible for providers to help keep patients on track and motivated in tackling large goals like losing weight and getting healthy, and healthcare portals make it possible for patients to access their medical records and securely communicate with their providers.
Digital Health in Acute Care Settings
In the acute care setting, digital health has great potential to play the same preventative role as it does in the primary care setting. But in addition to prevention, digital health is uniquely positioned to impact many more aspects of an inpatient practice. Below are some potential components that can be incorporated into a digital health initiative for an acute care setting.
Telemedicine refers to the practice of a provider treating or consulting a patient who is not physically close to them via live streaming and video conferencing technology. Telemedicine has great potential to improve access to care, particularly for underserved and rural areas where the population is more dispersed.
Exactly how telemedicine is incorporated into a digital health initiative, however, will depend on the specifics of the practice.
An acute care setting interested in incorporating telemedicine into their practice may, for example, choose to pursue a hub-and-spoke strategy, where providers reside in a central hub where they use telemedicine to remotely treat patients at a number of ancillary sites. Or they may decide to forgo opening ancillary sites in lieu of partnering with existing clinics and facilities.
2. Software as a Medical Device (SaMD)
Software plays a unique role in the acute care setting. In addition to the role it plays in information technology and cybersecurity, software is also used in many cases to treat, regulate, and monitor medical processes, which is of particular importance when used in conjunction with wireless medical devices.
Two extremely common examples of SaMD include the software that regulates pacemakers, as well as the software in continuous glucose readers that monitors and regulates insulin levels in diabetics. As the field continues to evolve, the importance and prevalence of SaMD is expected to dramatically increase.
3. Health IT, Cybersecurity, and Medical Device Interoperability
The FDA treats health IT, cybersecurity, and medical device interoperability as three separate parts of the digital health framework, but they are closely interrelated and as such deserve to be discussed in relation to one another.
Health information technology (IT): This technology includes the programs and processes for storing, retrieving, and sharing electronic medical records and personal health information, as well as for collecting and analyzing large amounts of health data. In today’s world, where a patient may see multiple specialists during the course of treatment, the ability to store, retrieve, and share this information is more important than ever before.
Cybersecurity: There are distinct cybersecurity processes and protocols which must be in place in order to protect the patient—both their privacy and their safety. Cybersecurity is one of the most essential pieces of any digital health framework, as each wireless medical device provides one more window through which bad actors may attempt to access vulnerable data.
Medical device interoperability: The capacity for medical devices to safely and securely “talk” to one another for smarter care and better patient outcomes. An example of such interoperability could be an EKG that synchronizes time and information with a pulse oximeter.
Pursuing Digital Health
Although each of the components discussed above is important, determining which pieces of the digital health framework to prioritize will depend on a number of factors specific to your practice and patients.
Of those listed here, which are you most interested in pursuing in your practice? What concerns or hesitations do you have?
To learn more about emerging topics in digital health, explore our latest posts, including “Six Digital Health Trends to Watch” and 5 Major Healthcare Challenges Being Solved By Digital Health Technology.”